Director of rugby in South Africa, Rassie Erasmus, is playing catch-up to Warren Gatland in the ongoing series between the Springboks and the British and Irish Lions.
Duh, I hear some of you say. Just look at the scoreboard, it’s 1-0 to coach Gatland’s Lions and the Boks must win on Saturday to stay in the three-match series.
But I’m not talking about on-field results here. I’m talking about the off-field chess game.
Sitting at opposite ends of the board are two masters of the game.
I recall Bok flyhalf Handre Pollard being asked about the mind games between the two bosses ahead of the first Test and said: “When it comes to these types of things, you don’t really want to take Rassie on. He’s very streetsmart.”
So too is Gatland.
When the New Zealand-born coach saw he wasn’t making metres fast enough by “attacking” Rassie’s new position as South Africa’s waterboy, he decided to take it to the officials and was “furious”, as described by my British colleagues, with the last-minute appointment of South African Marius Jonker as TMO.
Jonker replaced Kiwi Brendon Pickerill, who was unable to travel because of Covid disruptions.
We all know where the 50-50 calls went when decisions had to go upstairs in that 22-17 first Test defeat for the Boks in the Mother City clash last weekend.
Gatland won that round on the “streets” and then landed the killer blow on the pitch also, with his team blowing SA off the park in the second half.
Naming his team on Wednesday, Gatland then surprised yours truly when naming right-footed kicker Conor Murray in place of left-footed Ali Price at scrumhalf. To me that signals a big change in approach coming on Saturday.
And this is where I really hope the Boks aren’t reactive and rather proactive.
Their team selection suggests that they are reactive, with Jasper Wiese coming in for Kwagga Smith.
Personally, I would have kept the same team, but give captain Siya Kolisi the responsibility of fielding those high balls.
In fact, I would have – without necessarily changing the numbers on the back – swapped Kolisi and Kwagga.
See, Kolisi is a taller contestant in the air to Duhan van der Merwe and with his built he should be able to stand his ground longer than Smith did.
In doing so, you would free up Smith to play to the ball and contest the breakdown – an area I believe the Lions will look to attack this weekend.
Anyway, they went for Wiese, who can hopefully give us a Duane Vermeulen-like performance.
The Boks need a player who, at the very least, doesn’t get flattened when fielding a deep high ball.
Either way, this series needs the Boks to win the next one and I believe they can only do so if the 50-50s go their way this week.
“Streetsmart” Rassie is trying his best to transfer the pressure on the match officials heading into Saturday.
Not only did he highlight unfair officiating in the first Test in Twitter videos, but he smartly linked Gatland to Kiwi ref Ben O’Keefe. Just like Gatland linked Jonker to SA.
Rassie said on Tuesday: “In the past we’ve found that when we talk in the media too much, it normally backfires.
“Warren talked last week about Marius Jonker… Warren’s a great guy, I always enjoyed him, he’s a good man. [But] it was weird for me that people would question Marius’s integrity, it was almost like...
“Say we say this weekend Ben O’Keefe is a New Zealander and Warren is also a New Zealander, we will never do that. It wouldn’t sit well, the whole integrity of the game would be questioned. We would never do that…”
There you have it ladies and gentlemen, with enough pressure and the Kiwi link being highlighted O’Keefe might just give the 50-50s to the Boks this week.
If not, and he perhaps reads through this message, then I just hope the hosts have some proper plans to nullify the Lions.
Let’s see the players play some rugby for a change. They have the extra game under the belt and they got the feel for each other now. It’s time to turn on the style.
Over to you Rassie... erm sorry, Jacques Nienaber.